Are practicals effective?

As the much improved endorsement of practical skills for our A-level students translates from an inspired idea into reality this academic year, I’ve been thinking about the real purpose of practical work in our schools and colleges.

Throughout my teaching career, across key stages three to five, I’ve incorporated practicals into my lessons; to engage learners and to enable them to discuss key scientific concepts that they might have found inaccessible without ‘hands on’ experience. Practicals can be really fun and students find them an enjoyable way of learning. I’ve found that incorporating practicals has opened doors to me being able to elicit both their understanding of science and their ability to explain observations - for example the trend in reactivity of Group I metals. I’ve always intended to do the best for my students to get them ‘university ready’ - trying to ensure that they’re confident using both apparatus and techniques they would find in a university laboratory setting.

Practical work: making it more effective by Robin Millar and Ian Abrahams, is a fascinating read at this exciting time of change to practical assessment. The focus of their research was on whole-class practical activities, carried out by students themselves across all three sciences.

Millar and Abrahams investigate the balance between practical work leading to better learning and the fact that students don’t always learn what we want them to as a result. After a while many students may only recall small details and be unable to say what they have learned or what the aim even was. With that in mind, it’s really interesting to read their interpretation of whether practical work in schools and colleges is actually always effective. 

Like many teachers, I used to write objectives for all my lessons. They can be influenced by many things - schemes of work, available resources, the assessment criteria, but also by what skills we felt important to teach. I would translate these objectives into practicals to support ‘hands-on’ learning for students. Thinking about my own teaching I wonder if I was always effective in my delivery of practicals.

Practicals fall into multiple categories. The experience may help students develop their knowledge of the natural world, or work to ensure students learn how to use apparatus and techniques to follow scientific procedures. It may stimulate students’ knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas so they can describe or explain what they observe – to scientifically enquire. 

Investigating how science works; designing investigations, assessing and evaluating data, processing data, drawing conclusions and evaluating the procedure with confidence can only work if students are both ‘hands-on’ and ‘minds-on’. When I read this in the paper it hit home – science teachers now have a real opportunity to make a difference to their students.

Through our 12 core practicals detailed in the Practical Handbooks, students can access an extensive range of apparatus and techniques whilst developing mastery of the five Common Practical Assessment Criteria (CPAC). This is a real opportunity we need to grasp with renewed enthusiasm! 

Many teachers are already offering a great range of practicals – I’ve seen them in action during my visits to centres over the last few weeks. Even with limitations of technical support, resources or indeed funding, I believe the endorsement of practical skills at A-level may be the much needed vehicle to force through further support for teachers. After all, practicals are an essential part of our everyday work.

Grab a hot drink during your next break and read the Millar and Abrahams paper, it will motivate you, I promise! We all know that practicals are essential to teaching and learning – the challenge is to make them even more effective so that we can help our students go on to succeed in science. Let’s have a think about how we can use the changes to the practical endorsement to better our teaching and inspire the budding scientists in our classes.

Until next time…


References: Practical work: making it more effective by Robin Millar and Ian Abrahams (SSR September 2009, 91(334)